from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 18 September 2015

the rain it raineth

Each year, for several years now, a group of baccalaureate students from a Swiss school comes over to work with me outdoors on Devon and Cornwall's moors and coasts.  The idea is that such places will provide inspiration for writing, and as usual with the many of my courses in which land and sea feature as star players, inspiration is best provided, I believe, through immersion in the experience. 

For me, creative inspiration is deeply intertwined with environmental awareness; and there is, though I don't mention it, a therapeutic benefit to simply being immersed in the natural world, on its terms. It changes the way we relate to the rest of nature.

We begin at Dartmoor's Merrivale, an early Bronze Age megalithic site on which I've blogged a number of times.

The good thing about this work is that it happens no matter what the weather. The bad thing about this work is similar.

Monday morning brought us the worst forecast in quite some time: serious southwesterly winds, gale force, and very heavy rain. Dartmoor can be dangerous in poor conditions. I feel a twinge of anxiety.

Leaving Totnes, there was some sun and just a drop or two of rain. I felt more optimistic; teenagers, especially coming from a town or city in a country in which this summer seriously high temperatures have been the norm, tend to come equipped with not much more than a T-shirt, despite my warnings, and the exposed site of Merrivale can be truly freezing, even in the summer, and especially when we're walking into a gale. 

By the time I arrive at Princetown, though, any hopes I have of a more relenting weather system dissolve as all visibility goes and the shoulders of the granite tors are black under their blankets of fog. As the students pour out of the coach and into the little contained old school yard with its single one-time Christmas tree for my initial words I can see double disbelief: one at the content the sky is throwing at us, two at the notion that once, way back in the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age the climate here was drier, sunnier, and suitable for growing crops.

We make it as far as the stone circle (above, believe it or not), before the teachers' resistance gives out, and we decide to leg it to the pub for a hot chocolate before heading up the prehistoric drovers' track to a wooded tor for more writing.

This is the photo I took of the menhir near the circle just as we left:

Yes, I couldn't make it out afterwards, either. I think it must be my hair. It WAS a gale force wind.

However, the pub, despite the declaration on its website, is closed and remains closed. 

We decide to go back to the hostel where the group is staying so that they can dry out and we can actually do some writing; completely impossible on the moor today.

I'm amused by a notice in the loo at Bellever Hostel: 'Please don't put sanitary towels, nappies, gum, unpaid bills, unwanted underwear, your ex's favourite T-shirt, or your hopes and dreams down this toilet. Bins are provided.'

In the relative warmth, utter dryness and with the comfort of a cup of something hot, we write for a couple of fruitful hours, and to my amazement almost all the students say that they loved the morning.

Just as I leave the heart of the moor, the sun comes out.


One of the wonderful things about the work I do is that I love it. It's also, I think, unique. One of the difficult things is the latter: there simply is no one who can replace me if I go sick, and I can't go sick anyway because there is no income if I do, and in this case anyway the week is immovable and has been fixed for a year. These students have come over specifically to work with me in this way.

But I'm ill. I had to have a tooth out last week, and my whole body went into shock, so that I'm working – outdoors, in the rain – with a temperature, badly swollen glands and tonsils, and a headache. I badly need to be in bed.

The weather gods relent a little – quite a lot, in fact – on Tuesday, when we go to Branscombe. Almost all day there is sun, with just a passing cloud, though the sea shows how much storminess has churned at the base of the sandstone cliffs to our west, here on the Jurassic coast.

And the students love it.

The writing flows.

Except when it doesn't.

And then it's our third day, and Tintagel Castle, which still retains its atmosphere despite English Heritage's shop, booth and notices, and the many many tourists. We pass 'Merlin's Cave' and begin the steep ascent. It's cool and windy but not actually raining.

On the little island on which the castle ruins sit, I give them a group exercise then send them off to find a quiet spot to catch a story.

The castle area, much bigger than one expects, has many little enclosed areas, now tiny grassy 'lawns', that were once rooms (the castle ruins are early mediaeval, but there is evidence of an older, probably Dark Ages, settlement). Some students find a tiny promontory facing the wildness of the Atlantic; others tuck themselves in.

The students, shy at first and unsure that they really wanted to be here, in the wet British countryside, have really engaged with the work, and are keen to read it out too. We hear their final pieces in a small courtyard out of the wind.

Usually, we head off to one of the little 'garden rooms', as above, where I tell them the story of Tristan and Isolde, long associated with this place and the court of King Mark of Cornwall. This time we stay in the stone courtyard; the students, however, are so immersed in the story that they don't notice the passing tourists and have forgotten they're cold, and we are at least out of the wind. What's more, I remember all the details of the version of the tale I tell (not always the case).

And then the highlight: cream tea, in the café below, near the water.

One of the students, the noisy one who seemed the least engaged and interested in the work, the places and the writing, holds back until everyone else has said their goodbyes. Then she comes up to me quietly and tells me that she had arrived 'full of prejudice' about these days, but was leaving delighted to have written, to have experienced the days we have, and to have seen the sea for the first time in her life. I will never forget this, she says, and asks if she might give me a hug. I think we might both be crying, just a little.

And the sun comes out again as I drive home. 


  1. Beautiful. I had to deliver a training course once when I was fighting a virus. Not one of my best decisions! I hope you are feeling better and have given yourself plenty of healing time. It's interesting, isn't it..if you or I had been so ill that we were confined to bed/hospital, no matter how much we felt we couldn't cancel, we would have had to. And life would still have gone on.

    I hope one day I will be well enough to join you on one of your courses :)

  2. Oh Ro, what a wonderful report of the three days! I can just about imagine every single detail and it is as if I had been there too:)! And I am SO glad that it worked despite your being so poorly. And the leave taking - absolutely moving! But it is the magic of the places - and of course yours - which make it always a very special, unique and adventurous experience!!!
    I do hope you are getting better!
    Love B xx

  3. Thank you, Alison. You're right - my partner and daughter both said 'well if you were hospitalised what would you do? And if you ARE hospitalised as a result of pushing yourself all the time?' - It's true. But of all the courses I offer this would have been the most difficult to pull, after they'd come from Switzerland specifically.

    Yes, I hope you're well enough, too - not just to come on a course, but anyway, for YOU. Take care.

    Bea, as you know I always think of you when I do those days - it was after all entirely your initiative and your vision, and I'm so grateful for it, and so sad that you're no longer a part of it. The other teachers do remain fairly close to your vision and our fine-tuning of it (yours and mine), though, at least. And I think they appreciate what you set up. They keep coming back, anyway!



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